By Yaakov Lappin/JNS.org
At Ovda Air Base in southern Israel, fighter jets from different countries line up on the desert runways, waiting for the signal from the control tower. Soon afterwards, they take off, roaring into the sky and assuming positions in the airspace just north of Eilat.
They are subsequently challenged by Israeli F-16s—members of the Red Squadron—whose mission is to simulate the enemy’s actions and launch mock attacks.
From down below, the jets are “attacked” by Israeli Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries, representing the kind of advanced ground threats that exist in multiple combat theaters.
These unusual scenes played out at Blue Flag, Israel’s largest-ever international aerial exercise.
The recently held drill drew hundreds of personnel and nearly 50 jets from the air forces of the U.S., Greece, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and India. The visitors came to practice difficult missions—the type that could prove critical to their countries’ security—with the Israeli Air Force (IAF).
For France, Germany and India, it was the first time that they were involved in a joint Israeli air drill. This year marked the third iteration of the biannual Blue Flag exercise.
“The goal is to maximize the combat readiness of the air crews,” said Col. Itamar, Israel’s base commander at Ovda, whose full name is withheld for security reasons.
“We provided an excellent, high-tech, intensive playground—a very tough playground—for them to do this,” he told JNS.org.
The teams taking part in the exercise were made up of a combination of countries flying together. Israeli F-15 and F-16 pilots took part in both the blue and red teams.
Participants also fired real munitions from their aircraft over ranges, practicing bombing runs.
Down on the ground, the pilots and crews ate, slept and socialized in a single complex, as part of the IAF’s bid to create friendships—relationships that could come in handy if the air crews find themselves cooperating and responding to threats together in the future.
The air crews sampled the IAF’s rigorous day and night training techniques, and had the opportunity to fly low over the treeless desert terrain.
They also said they benefited from the detailed, post-flight debriefings, in which mistakes are highlighted, analyzed and used to draw lessons.
“To be excellent means two things—being modest, and learning from others,” Col. Itamar said. “We have learned a lot from the other teams.”
The base commander was reluctant to discuss specific threat scenarios, adding that terrorist groups threaten all countries. He said the drill was tactical in nature, and did not address specific strategic situations.
He became emotional when discussing the first-time involvement of the German Air Force, saying, “To see a German squadron commander arrive here to train with us, and delivering a short address in Hebrew, is a moment I will always remember.” Germany arrived with six Eurofighter jets and a 125-member team.
Lt.-Col. Gero von Fritschen, Commodore of the Tactical Air Force Wing 73 in the German Air Force, echoed the Israeli commander’s sentiment.
“For me personally, it is an honor to be here. We have had a very warm welcome,” he said. “For Germany to send combat aircraft to Israel is a political sign. It shows close ties, and that Germany is interested in closer cooperation.”
Capt. B (full name withheld), a 26-year-old F-15 pilot in the IAF who took part in the drill, grew up in New Jersey and moved to Israel at age 18. Today, he is an instructor in the IAF’s pilot course, and an operational combat jet pilot.
“Every flight is demanding and dangerous,” he said. “We have rules of engagement to achieve safety when flying with other countries. We have set altitudes for different teams.”
Asked what it was like to train with German pilots, Capt. B said, “History is written in the books. The future is being written right now, by us. It is getting brighter.”
Capt. Maluk Singh, a member of the Indian Air Force delegation, noted that India sent a Hercules military transport team and special forces to Israel for Blue Flag. They drilled flying over enemy lines, conducting raids and extracting the elite soldiers.
“We thought this is a multilateral exercise that we can learn a lot from,” he told JNS.org, explaining India’s decision to take part for the first time. India’s participation is also being viewed by observers as the latest signal of the growing Israeli-Indian alliance.
Lt.-Col. Benjamin Freeborn, Commander of the U.S. Air Force 510th Fighter Squadron, based out of Avano, Italy, described his force’s long-standing relationship with Israel.
“Since the 1970s, when I was at weapons school, the model of how we train our young inexperienced personnel was also based on learning a lot from the IAF,” he told JNS.org, adding praise for the IAF’s debriefing practices after flights and determination “to get to the absolute truth of how to get better.”
The exercise is “very pilot focused,” Freeborn said. “It builds readiness and combat capabilities that we’d be proud to apply wherever called.” The U.S. sent eight F-16s and 200 personnel to Israel for the drill.
With six out of eight participants coming from NATO, the drill was an indication of the IAF’s growing awareness of the potential for cooperation with friends, said IAF representative Lt.-Col. Richard Hecht.
“We were very insular [before holding regular air drills with friendly countries],” Hecht said. “The air force had to build a common language. We’re now learning to understand the language and standards of NATO.”